Mahzarin Banaji is a psychologist at Harvard, and the germ for her new book "Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People," is found in a story. Banaji has a friend named Carla Kaplan. Some years ago, both were faculty members at Yale. Kaplan had a passion for quilting – she was one of those people who sit in meetings, quilting away. One evening she had a kitchen accident washing a crystal bowl, and it slipped and cut her hand, from her palm to her wrist.
Kaplan raced over to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Pretty much the first thing she told the ER doctor was that she was a quilter, and was worried about her hand. The doctor reassured her and started to stitch her up. He was doing a perfectly competent job. But at this moment someone spotted her – a student, volunteering at the hospital. The student recognized her, and said, "Professor Kaplan, what are you doing here?" At that moment, Kaplan recounts, the ER doctor froze. He asked the bleeding young woman if she was a Yale faculty member. And everything changed in an instant. The hospital tracked down the best-known hand specialist in New England. They brought in a whole team of doctors. They operated for hours and tried to save practically every last nerve.
The colleagues later explored what happened. "Somehow," Banaji says, "it must be that the doctor… did not feel compelled by the quilter story in the same way as he was compelled by the phrase, ‘Yale professor.’"1 They call this hidden discrimination. No one is going across town to burn a church; no one is seeking out someone of another ethnic group to harm. This almost always happens with "good people" people, they argue, in any profession – this isn’t about picking on doctors – who work hard, who would say that they want to help. Hidden discrimination is not about active harm, but a lack of doing good, of not putting forth the same effort for everyone as for the Yale Professor, or Duke or UNC professor, the politician or preacher, for that matter. Banaji digs into all sorts of data to help us understand what we know: that we tend to give more credence to people who we think are like us. Who we know and know us. With whom we feel some kind of deep and personal connection.
While I can’t find any evidence that God was reflecting on brain science a little over 2000 years ago, I think the exact same principle is in play in the incarnation, the act of God becoming human. As we tend towards people like us, we need a God we can understand, and who we feel understands us. "And in Jesus Christ," we say, "[God’s] only Son our Lord." The word incarnation comes from the Latin in- and caro-, flesh, in flesh, to be made flesh. We speak of this reality in different ways, but the Christian Church continues to hold that our faith is rooted in history, that somehow, God became a person for around 33 years 2 millennia ago.
In different seasons we end up emphasizing different sides of Jesus. Some in the early church argued that Jesus wasn’t all God but was disguised as a person, a heresy the early church called docetism. They argued Jesus was faking like He was sleeping or eating, acting like He was tired when he wasn’t. It is this heresy that John was arguing against when he wrote this prologue to his gospel. "In the beginning was the Word," he writes, saying that Jesus was co-existent with God from before creation. John names Jesus the Word, in greek logos, a term used by Greek philosophers and rabbis is slightly different ways to talk about that which rules the universe, reason, wisdom, law.2 Jesus didn’t just show up at the appointed time, John says. He was God before, reigns with God now.
Jesus was ALL God, a full partner from the beginning. He turns water into wine, heals lepers, raises Lazarus from the dead. But, the other side – that we seek to balance together – is that Jesus was also ALL human. That is another component of the gift of the incarnation: that our God is both distant and close, both big and powerful and sovereign and very near. We can’t yell at God in our pain, "You don’t know what it’s like down here!" Because God has felt, in God’s own self, the joys of friendship, the exhaustion of a hard day’s work, the satisfaction of a meal with friends, the pain of betrayal, anguish of death. The Philippians text is a song of the early church that expresses how God, in Jesus, emptied himself in verse 7, the Greek is kenosis, literally poured out, like you pour water from a pitcher. Jesus poured out his divinity, placed limits on himself, so that he might truly be present here. It brings me great comfort to know that on days when I am tired or cranky or feeling petty, that Jesus waded into all these things, too.
The balance of humanity and divinity comprise the WHAT of the incarnation. But there are also at least a couple of reasons WHY. There are some fairly elaborate theories on why, many of them arguing that a human death, by God giving up God’s own Beloved, satisfied God’s own demands for justice for human guilt and sin. You will find evidence for some of this in scripture. But I don’t think God had to do anything. God didn’t have to become flesh, God CHOSE to. And I tend think it was because God knows, from good brain science and God’s own wisdom, that we only really respond to things like us. And that if a relationship is to be real, and deep, and true, it is done in partnership, it is done together. We don’t follow a God that is only up in the sky somewhere, who spins the whirling planets and leaves us to our own devices, except to smite us when we get off course. The best way we know WHO God is, and WHAT God is about, is by looking at Jesus. A person.
To offer us Jesus’ own life as model is the other WHY. This is, from where I sit, the hardest part. Jesus lived freely, in a way that no one has before or will. He didn’t have much stuff – it seems he didn’t have his own house. He walked a lot. He spent time teaching and in prayer. He was, Shirley Guthrie writes, "the friend of the wrong people socially and politically. He was the friend of women whom no decent and respectable man of his time would have anything to do with. He violated social morality and convention… the friend of all who were poor and oppressed…"3 He showed us, by his living, what matters to God, and therefore should matter to US. He knew power didn’t come from taking, but by giving away – money, power, love. His life is a strong witness to us, those who claim to follow him in the church. Especially in communities like ours we are great at working to "help" others, those people Jesus loved. But we don’t know them, sure as heck don’t eat with them. The church, especially the white church, has a lot to work on.
My daughter Ella Brooks took a dance class at Barriskill, and last Sunday night was the spring recital for all of their classes at Reynolds Auditorium at Duke. It was a massive production, with all this extra stuff, a big dress rehearsal on Saturday. Sunday afternoon she and I got in the car all dressed up in her hip costume, black tights and a white t-shirt, belt with big silver buttons, hair slicked back under a bandana, wearing makeup for the first time in her life. I was there to walk her in, to be steady until everyone else got there, expecting her to be pretty nervous. We chatted as we got out of the car, walked down the parking deck stairs. And as we rounded the corner things set in, she got quiet, and then she did what young kids do, but she, at 7 getting closer to 8 is getting away from. We were walking beside each other and, without realizing it at first, I felt this little hand reach up. I instinctively took it, and she grabbed on and pulled herself in close. Just a bit of reassurance. A touch. Something real.
And I thought in that moment how extraordinary that love is, between a parent and a child, not only as John says, "of the glory of a father’s only son," but the joy of human relationships, of people we know and love in our biological family and the family of faith, friends with whom we have shared many years. And, because of the gift of the incarnation, because we know God has come to earth and walked among us, we can say, God’s love is something like that. Much bigger, infinitely more grand, but we have been given the opportunity to glimpse it. And if God’s love is even a bit bigger than that little hand slipping into mine, then I am surely along for the ride….
All praise be to God, and Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. Amen.
1. This story comes from an NPR account. It intrigued me, so I purchased the book: Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, "Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People," (New York: Delacorte Press, 2013). The story appears on pages 140 and following.
2. "Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary," Year B, Volume 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), p 191.
3. Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p 242. Chapter 12 on the incarnation is so helpful and clear, and informs much of this sermon.